Design with Nature

a review by Bob Roman

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How could I resist:

“The world is a glorious bounty. There is more food than can be eaten if we would limit our numbers to those who can be cherished, there are more beautiful girls than can be dreamed of, more children than we can love, more laughter than can be endured, more wisdom than can be absorbed. Canvas and pigments lie in wait, stone, wood and metal are ready for sculpture, random noise is latent for symphonies, sites are gravid for cities, institutions lie in the wings ready to solve our most intractable problems, parables of moving power remain unformulated and yet, the world is finally unknowable.

“How can we reap this bounty? This book is a modest inquiry into this subject.”

Thus begins Ian McHarg’s classic introduction to ecological planning, Design with Nature (1969).

Back in July of 2018, I wrote a brief post remembering the extraordinary early PBS television program The Great American Dream Machine. In that post, I mentioned an earlier, pre-PBS program, Public Broadcast Laboratory. Both of these programs had a big influence on my values and my politics. In particular, one Public Broadcast Laboratory episode included an hour-long documentary directed by Austin Hoyt based on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature. That episode, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” was my introduction to Ian McHarg, and I was hugely impressed.

I’ve only been able to find one complete episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory and a partial episode: “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” the McHarg documentary, both on YouTube.

“Multiply and Subdue the Earth” is below. It is of only adequate quality; you won’t gain anything by putting YouTube in full screen mode. And it’s grey-scale when the original film (and TV program) was color. Around the turn of the century, this documentary was still available for rental from a division of Indiana University, VHS format, but the folks who had done the transfer from film had waited too long. The color dyes were becoming distinctly magenta. Grey-scale may thus be a mercy. (Copies of Public Broadcast Laboratory episodes are also held at the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston and possibly elsewhere. It may be that a fair copy exists or could be cobbled together.)

How do the documentary and the book hold up? Watch it yourself; the hour is well worth it:

The documentary is in large part a summary of McHarg’s book, but it begins where McHarg ends: with Dr. John Calhoun, another mostly forgotten yet influential thinker of the mid-20th Century. Dr. Calhoun was obsessed with population studies for various rodent species. He would set up rodent utopias where the population was supplied with as much food and water as needed, with no restrictions on breeding. Things would go well until population densities would reach a tipping point. Then rodent society, such as it is, would begin to break down and, even though they were supplied with adequate food and water, the population would collapse: rodent apocalypse!

This dovetailed very nicely with Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb (1968) over-population argument because the reply to Erhlich and cassandras like him was that technology would save our asses: one way or another food and water and other necessities would be obtained or invented, especially with greed as the motivator. Calhoun’s experiments suggested that utopia, be it capitalist or socialist, would not suffice. You’ll note that in the documentary, much of Calhoun’s list of rodent social dysfunction address the insecurities of the time: gender definition, clockwork orange violent crime, aimless hedonism and sexuality, social isolation. That alone should raise some warning flags regarding the research.

Well, we pretty much know how to cure cancer in mice; it’s been studied so well and so often and for so long. But humans are not mice. While I’m not a scholar and so can’t provide the cites (I recall that back in the 1970s there was an article about this in Scientific American), I do know that others were motivated by Calhoun’s work to study population densities in other species. Other species don’t all react as rodents do and even rodents have coping strategies when the means are available to them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was also common to associate population growth with poverty. This was reasonable enough when one considered the condition of the Indian subcontinent and of China at the time. Subsequent experience and research shows that capitalism benefits from expanding population and doesn’t deal well with declines — capitalism is expand or die, after all. On the other hand, it does not follow that expansion can continue indefinitely.

Calhoun also inspired at least two major works of fiction. One is said to be Robert O’Brien’s award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) that later became a nicely done animated feature movie. If I have doubts, it is mainly because O’Brien’s book postulates NIMH experiments boosting the intelligence of rats and mice (genetic engineering, circa 1971!) and because Calhoun was hardly the only person at the Institute doing research with rats.

The other book is John Brunner’s 1967 classic novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner’s novel takes Calhoun seriously and applies a straight-line projection of the trends as would be expected from Calhoun’s experiments. I’ve mentioned Brunner’s novel twice before on this blog and this post is supposed to be about Ian McHarg not John Calhoun not John Brunner; however, McHarg did facilitate a study of health in Philadelphia that suggested some degree of negative correlation between the density of population and good health, supporting Calhoun’s thesis. This was not in the documentary, but an account of methodology and findings is in McHarg’s book.

Design with Nature is an education about ecology (which is not just biology) and its use in planning with case studies encompassing a wide variety of landscapes, including urban and suburban environments, and a discussion of philosophy. If you can find a hard cover, coffee table edition, you should prefer that larger format as the book is lavishly illustrated and the graphics are not just pretty but also a vital part of the content.

For a democratic socialists such as myself, the thunderclap was not so much McHarg’s distaste for market forces and his embrace of planning, but that he was able to provide a coherent and workable methodology of just how planning could be done. Furthermore, it is a methodology that can be computerized, although in 1968, that was aspirational rather than practical.

McHarg contends land-use decisions cannot be left entirely to the market, whatever “market” means. As McHarg put it:

The economists… ask with the most barefaced effrontery that we accommodate our value system to theirs. Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs, they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress — yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival. (Page 25)

If the market, left to itself, leads to “despoliation, uglification and inhibition of life,” the environmental record of planning under soviet-style “real existing socialism” is catastrophically worse. McHarg doesn’t touch that subject at all though there were surely inklings trickling out from behind the “iron curtain.” But McHarg does insist on another necessary dimension: values. Here, McHarg places the blame on the “great western religions born of monotheism,” hence the title of the documentary, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth.” Considering that other cultures, including the avowedly atheist soviet socialism, have done as poorly if not worse, this strikes me as being a bit of false determinism born of personal grievance: something connected with McHarg’s father, I would speculate after having read McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life. Still, a belief “that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes” (page 27) seems to be necessary.

One thing that is not discussed in the book is how this planning might be institutionalized. The documentary suggests that land-use planning be moved from the local level to the state, using Hawaii as an example. In the movie, at least, McHarg endorses the idea. I’m not sure. Hawaii, after all, is a geographically small state. It could be a useful move, but consider the sometimes willful, pigheaded misunderstanding of things like environmental impact statements (not a requirement of local zoning but of state or federal) and how easily such requirements can be portrayed as “elite” outsiders dictating to the detriment of local residents: Perhaps a multilevel governmental approach would be better, though the division of responsibilities and appeals would need to be thought out better than my vague observation.

In retrospect, McHarg was entirely too optimistic about the weight of science in the process. The evidence, even the science, can always be argued over. Regulations that describe process and decision-making are hard to write without self-subversive ambiguity or without stultifying rigidity or without being an exercise in well-intentioned futility. (Regarding the last, McHarg was totally contemptuous of strip-mining regulations that required companies to restore the land “to its original contours.” What the hell does that mean?) There is also the issue of people using the process for ends alien to its intent: gaming the system. Whether it be Not In My Back Yard fanaticism or “paid troublemakers,” this aspect is pretty well an assumed motive by those afflicted with the pathological cynicism of our times.

The law — or more specifically the courts — is also a difficulty in the United States. According to McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life, he was aware of the difficulties involved in the “takings” aspect of constitutional law. It appears that he underestimated the difficulties there, as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has been eager to require governments to pay for any inconvenience imposed on landowners, even when said inconvenience would pay dividends by avoiding predictable disaster, like not building on a primary dune along the seashore or in a floodplain of a river — never mind that in building so, the developer is “taking” from future owners of that property, the government (disaster rescue and recovery) and the surrounding community. If it can’t be priced, it doesn’t exist, and most courts are committed to advancing a libertarian agenda whenever they can get away with it.

It is a pity: McHarg had long ago grown weary of arguing aesthetics with his clients. Designing with nature is intended to not only be beautiful but also to save money by minimizing costs of construction and maintenance,  while delivering beauty and continuing productivity — the substance behind that happy happy buzz word “sustainability”. That approach is also a clue as to how this might be integrated into a social democratic version of capitalism — though, granted, it is not clear that such a version of capitalism is itself genuinely sustainable as social democracy.

2019 will be 50 years since both the publication and the documentary. It’s really past time that we touch base with what may be last hopeful moment in our history. You can start by watching the documentary and by reading the book. Remember, it is entirely possible to profitably hunt a species to extinction (it’s been done), and likewise we have a grand opportunity in the next several decades to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to profitably breed and consume ourselves to the same end.

Post Script: For an example of fairly extreme human crowding, consider Hong Kong:

Fake News

by Bob Roman

Recently David Greising, the President and CEO of the Better Government Association, posted an editorial, Even in an Age of ‘Fake News,’ the Truth Wins Out, that denounced fake news and the spread of “alternative facts” and innuendo in public life while, reasonably enough, touting the good work that the Better Government Association does in promoting truth. Among other things, Greising wrote:

When President Trump first called reporters “enemies of the people” in early 2017, it was a shock. The term came from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, via the Third Reich’s Josef Goebbels via the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

“Fake News” has its own ignoble lineage. Like George Orwell’s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” in the novel 1984, “Fake News” is pure double think.

If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake.

It is a clarion call for the light of truth against the cynical, power-obsessed forces of self-serving lies: Forces so inured to deception that its practitioners are unable to distinguish actual journalism from their own bloviating. As Roy Edroso at the Village Voice put it:

Yeah, that’s how journalists operate. They claim they’re “reporting news,” but they’re really passing on orders to kill. It’s easy to understand why conservatives think this way. They themselves admit that right-wing media outlets don’t do a lot of reporting, and most are simply content to chest-pound on behalf of Donald Trump. So would they even recognize what journalism is? Under such circumstances it would make sense if they came to consider journalism in the same way they consider creative endeavors: as vaguely disreputable dark arts practised only by their enemies, to be beaten back with slander and propaganda.

But: “If it’s news, it can’t be fake”? Really?

Whatever else is going on, there’s a fundamental miscommunication here. For partisan ideologues, fake news can also be news with an agenda or news with a particular spin, including controversies based on a biased or false premise. (When did you stop beating your wife?) Partisans have a particular reason to be sensitive to this as so much of what partisans do is directed at putting their particular issues of concern on the political agenda, in other words, manipulating the news media coverage (or lack thereof) of issues.

This can be really quite blatant. Consider for a moment the practice of setting up “spin rooms” for journalists after a political event such as a debate or a political convention. The point is to reiterate and explain talking points, making sure of the most favorable interpretation of events. “Spin rooms” as a formal practice was first begun by the Reagan for President campaign back in 1984, but similar efforts before and since can be found in the old Sunday morning talk shows on TV or even today on social media such as Twitter. Is this “fake news” only when it includes lies?

Broadcast media, radio and television, dominated journalism for most of the 20th Century, and these entities had been encouraged to be neutral, at least in the sense of allowing time for multiple viewpoints. They use a publicly “owned” medium, after all, with the consent of the government by license: the electro-magnetic spectrum. This has had a decisive influence on the ethics of the profession, but before broadcast news, there was not even a pretense at neutrality. In the 19th Century, for example, U.S. newspaper editors were typically major players in the internal politics of U.S. political parties (including minor parties).

But journalists are not just journalists / reporters / scribes. They are story-tellers. If you’re a journalist, your bosses want an audience to sell to advertisers, yes? And you, the journalist, want an audience to read or watch or listen to what is said, right? So: “if it bleeds, it leads” or “personalize your story”, but there is more as well. As any story-teller will confide, a story stands on the shoulders of previous stories. Your audience will bring their own baggage to whatever they are consuming so it helps if they can tell part of the story themselves. As an experiment, find a news story covering the politics or an event in some part of the world about which you know next to nothing. Don’t be surprised if it makes no sense or, at a minimum, if it leaves you puzzled. The puzzling missing pieces are the parts of the story the intended audience brings to the report. If you are telling the audience something entirely new, the audience will require an education. This imposes an “opportunity cost” on any new perspective while the familiar will go down easy.

Likewise, story-telling evokes expectations of drama, irony, gossip and closure. My impression is that maybe closure is a bigger part of broadcast journalism than the web or print, but it is nearly universal. Listen to almost any radio or TV news report and pay attention to the last few sentences: it will be a conclusion, typically some clichéd conventional wisdom apropos the topic of the report. It’s the safe thing to do, after all, and often enough the reporter is dealing with a subject about which the reporter knows very little. How could one go wrong by parroting what is broadly accepted, however inane? Except that often this wisdom is also a judgement: Trump has no chance of winning or Bernie Sanders’ campaign will go nowhere, as examples.

As an aside, it’s not only the need for drama that turns political coverage into a horse race story. The late Tom Wicker learned the hard way as a journalist: If you do not want to be scooped, you have to cover the possibilities as well as what has happened:

“…Whitman had had the foresight to get a pledge from Kurfees that if he did run, he’d break the story in the Sentinel. I kicked myself for weeks because if I’d thought there was even a possibility that Kurfees would run again, I could have offered him more circulation for an exclusive in the morning Journal. Moral: in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”

— Tom Wicker, On Press, page 37

Fake news, definition 2, anyone? “Which often are not facts at all,” fake news, definition 1, anyone? And this isn’t even allowing for interviews with players who speculate on possibilities with the aim of creating a particular outcome.

Tom Wicker is right. Sometimes what we think we know is simply untrue. Consider the routine press reports about studies recommending how a particular diet will lead to particular healthful benefits. Often enough these are studies using small populations of dubious statistical value, sometimes even financed by entities with an interest in the results. Is this “fake news”? Public radio’s On the Media has devoted episodes to debunking false statistics (see, for example, “Prime Number” or “The Stat Police“), yet they continue to be routinely incorporated in reporting. But repeated and debunked often enough, it leaves room for people to doubt even spectacularly dangerous phenomenon like human-induced global warming.

When you add all this to an epidemic of pathological cynicism and mistrust, you have an atmosphere deadly to even republican democracy. But contra David Greising, the profession of journalism is not a simple victim here.

With the rise of the web and cable as major media, we’re seeing a shift back to advocacy as a legitimate part of journalism. This influences expectations regarding all of journalism. And being human, when we look for bias, inevitably we’ll find it, even when it’s not exactly there. See, for example, On the Media’s exercise in navel-gazing back in 2012 on whether National Public Radio has a liberal bias (~ 20 minutes):

What journalism should consider is a professional standard that admits to bias and advocacy but requires the inclusion of information sufficient for the news consumer to decide for themselves.

Fake news as manufactured lies is indeed a problem, has been a problem for longer than we usually remember (doctored photos for example), and promises to become a more of a problem as it becomes possible to create audio and video that is very nearly convincing. For a deep dive into the possibilities, check out Radiolab’s episode Breaking News (2017). For an update on the progress of video algorithms, see A New Computer Program Generates Eerily Realistic Fake Videos at Science News.

I don’t mind David Greising tooting the BGA horn; they do good work, mostly. And I’m certainly no friend of Donald Trump. But it is worrisome that when we discuss “fake news”, we seem to be talking past one another, assuming that there is a mutual understanding of what is under discussion when in fact there is not.

It’s also difficult to defend journalism from our Liar-in-Chief when journalists have been so willing to give past occupants of the White House a free pass. And consider just how uncritically beat-the-drum, rah-rah coverage has been over our various military adventures. This hasn’t always been true, it’s true. LBJ had his credibility gap, for just one example. But this very inconsistency leaves journalism’s credibility open to question at a time when it should be galvanizing the public to action instead.

Suspend Your Disbelief

How to create a cult or irrevocably polarize an issue in seven easy steps…

and yes, t-shirts are available.

Caution: this methodology has real-world applications. Vi Hart uses the pi v. tau “controversy” as an example (heads up, math geeks!), but her seven steps will sound dismayingly familiar in the context of politics today, especially today…

It may be a lefty bias on my part, but it seems to have it’s greatest use these days among conservatives and in Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) controversies. But like Alinksy’s organizing methodology, it can be used (in whole or in part) from any point on the political spectrum.

It’s especially apt for social media wherein audiences can be found with amazing efficiency. It’s an example of how new technologies make particular human behaviors more viable.

Of course, you wouldn’t fall for this, would you?

The Great American Dream Machine

And while we’re celebrating America’s birthday, let’s remember a truly remarkable early PBS television series:

The Great American Dream Machine did not assume an audience of distracted idiots. Amazing. This particular clip was a promotion for a retrospective anthology program on the 40th anniversary of the series. It played on the TV station that had produced the series.

I do believe the series (1971 to 1973) is available on DVD, but you can find clips of various episodes on YouTube and (a few) on Vimeo.

Several years prior to this, there was the “Public Broadcast Laboratory,” a sort of beta test for the Public Broadcasting System. If I remember correctly, the archive of episodes of “Public Broadcast Laboratory” ended up at a division of the Indiana University system where no one saw them. They were available for rent, however, and I did so twice. Apparently the Corporation for Public Broadcasting retained copies as well and in the 1990s donated them to the Library of Congress. No one sees these, either. There are one or two episodes posted on YouTube that I was able to find. More on this later, perhaps, because it did have a big influence on my politics.

I can’t quite remember the last time I watched TV. The last TV set that I owned died in the early 1980s. The Chicago DSA office had an analog TV set for which we never bothered to obtain a digital conversion box. On those get-up-from-the-desk breaks, I would often turn it on briefly. I learned that the programming was actually interesting provided the sound was entirely muted. The visuals were usually artful and engaging and were sometimes even decent story-telling. With sound, the experience almost always threatened brain damage. We left the TV set behind when we moved the office from 1608 N. Milwaukee. By then, there were only three stations left broadcasting in analog format.

This, of course, is broadcast TV. Friends of mine had cable. The expense was far outside what I was willing to pay, sometimes far outside what I could afford if I wanted to eat as well, plus there were all those commercials, frequently more than on broadcast TV. Does anyone remember the early days of cable when they promised a commercial free experience because, after all, you’re paying a subscription? It seems that, beyond the obvious selling point, it was mainly because next to no one was interested in advertising on cable then. Gotcha! Bait and switch.

I can turn into a couch potato with just the internet, thank you, no need for TV.

And I have.